New Hampshire is over. The midseason break of two games in six weeks is history, too.
UNO plunges head first into the rest of its National Collegiate Hockey Conference season this weekend, beginning an eight-series-in-nine-weeks stretch of league play against Minnesota-Duluth.
“This is huge,” junior center Dominic Zombo said. “We can put last weekend behind us and have a new start to the second half. We've got all conference games the rest of the year and we have a chance to get on the right track.”
Last weekend, UNO played its second series since Nov. 23 and, despite putting itself in good position in each game of the nonconference series at New Hampshire, wound up dropping a pair of games by three-goal margins.
Now comes Minnesota-Duluth for games at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Center.
“Hopefully Duluth is as rusty as we were,” said UNO coach Dean Blais, who on Friday, along with defenseman Jaycob Megna, will sit out the last of a three-game suspension for an extra-benefits violation.
“It's going to take some time to get back where we were (in November), but hopefully it doesn't take too much time. Because the games now are important.”
Minnesota-Duluth, which beat the U.S. National Under 18 team 7-0 in an exhibition game Jan. 3, hasn't played a regular season game since Dec. 14.
Meanwhile, UNO lost its spot in the national rankings and dropped to 8-9-1 after the New Hampshire series.
“We knew we were going to be a little bit off on our passing and our timing and some preparational things,” Blais said. “But we were good enough to get a lead (both nights) on a very good hockey team in an Olympic-sized arena — which is always an adjustment, and we adjusted quite well. We were playing well and competing hard.
“Then for penalties to cost us the game … we haven't done that (in league play). We're 5-2-1 in a real tough conference because we've played smart and disciplined.”
Despite a sub-.500 overall record, the Mavs have been solid in NCHC play, sitting in second place with 17 points (the Mavs are 5-2-1-1), two behind St. Cloud State. Minnesota-Duluth (7-8-1, 3-5-0) is part of a three-way tie for sixth in the eight-team league with nine points.
“They're a younger team, but they're fast and really skilled,” UNO right wing Josh Archibald said. “You definitely can't take them lightly.”
Ex-Omaha Lancer Justin Crandall leads the Bulldogs with 12 points (eight goals, four assists), and leads the NCHC and is tied for fifth nationally with six power-play goals.
“They've got a little bit of everything,” Blais said. “They've got some decent-sized forwards and defensemen and they play the body really well. They've got decent speed. They're a good skating team, although they've been faster in years past.”
Crandall's brother, Aaron, is the Bulldogs' primary goaltender, going 5-5 with a 2.94 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage.
Meanwhile, UNO's goaltending picture has become muddled as junior Ryan Massa has cooled off. After winning five straight starts in November, Massa (5-4-0) has surrendered 11 goals in his last three starts, losing twice and being pulled in the other, as his GAA has swelled to 3.37 and his save percentage has dropped to .880. Kirk Thompson (3-3-1, 2.91 GAA, .893 save percentage) is back in the picture again.
“We were counting on Ryan playing Friday nights and Kirk playing Saturdays,” Blais said. “We'll watch them and take the one who seems to be the sharpest. … There wasn't a lot of ice time available for Ryan over Christmas. He was playing well, but he's struggled a few times. Right now we're looking for a goaltender to take it and go.”
Minnesota-Duluth has split with then-No. 2 Notre Dame, split at then-No. 13 North Dakota and split at then-No. 1 Minnesota. Two other losses came in a home sweep at the hands of No. 2 St. Cloud State.
The Bulldogs lead the country by ringing up an average of 17.5 penalty minutes per game, but their penalty kill has been good enough (sixth nationally at 87.5 percent) to withstand it. That's not the case for the Mavs, who have the third-worst PK in the country yet are still eighth in penalty minutes (15.6 per game).
“We've just got to get back to playing a solid 60 minutes of hockey with everyone doing his job,” Zombo said. “We get in trouble and lose games when guys are trying to do too much.”